views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

A Catered Affair
The London Theatre Workshop
5th June 2014


Howard Samuels and Maggie Robson as Tom and Aggie Hurley

Photography provided by The London Theatre Workshop

If you've ever been in any way involved with a wedding, the plot of A Catered Affair will be alarmingly familiar. The mother of the bride wants to control the wedding so she can experience the big day that she never had herself, both sets of in-laws fight over the guest list, the bride and groom get so dressed they consider eloping, and the winners are of course the catering companies who get to charge extra due to the word 'wedding'. From the off, it hardly seems like groundbreaking stuff, weddings have always and will always be like this in the Western world.

However, when an army sergeant (Ellen Verenieks) turns up at the house of Aggie (Maggie Robson) and Tom Hurley (Howard Samuels) with their dead son's medals and the family bereavement benefit, suddenly director Ray Rackham ups his game. The husband and wife silently inspect their son's belongings, too overcome with grief to even attempt to verbalise their feelings. There's a long, poignant silence in which the tone shifts and you realise Harvey Fierstein's book isn't really about young lovers Janey Hurley (Aimee Gray) and Ralph Halloran (Calum Melville), it's about Janey's parents.

Aggie's solo Our Only Daughter is full of regret for not loving both her children equally, and trying to make amends. It's a horribly honest confession, made all the more upsetting by the grimaces made by Janey in the background when her mother talks about her brother and it's clear that Janey always knew she was second best. When Tom sings I Stayed, his anguish is palpable, despite Aggie's criticism, he has always tried to support her and their children in the only way he has known how. You do wonder if they would have stayed together had single parenthood not carried such a stigma in the 50s.

Robson is the unexpected standout star, packing her performance with some strong emotions - guilt, sorrow, love, resentment - really moving us. Robson's portrayal is heartbreaking to watch, and matched only by Samuels' mirrored sadness. The rest of the cast never quite reach the same heights, but provide able support.

David Anthony as Uncle Winston

Photography provided by The London Theatre Workshop

Naturally, with Harvey Fierstein having written the book, he inserts Uncle Winston (David Anthony) into the action, an obviously gay, larger than life character. As Winston sings of his Immediate Family with more than a touch of bitterness, he's a deeply entertaining drunk, but doesn't necessarily gel with the rest of the production. Perhaps deliberately so, Fierstein has always been a very vocal support of gay rights, and having a "confirmed bachelor uncle" who doesn't fade into the background is another excuse to try to make a point.

Having also seen Ordinary Days at the London Theatre Workshop, I'm rapidly reaching the conclusion that as talented as the musicians are - led this time by David Keefe - the venue is just too small for a live orchestra. I don't think miking up the performers would necessarily solve the issue, that would just make the sound as a whole too big for the space. Sadly, it's difficult to envisage how they could overcome this. It's truly a charming space, but does have its limitations.

None of the songs are earworms, and the lyrics never seem particularly eloquent. Given this was based on a 50s film and television play, there's little justification for John Bucchino's musical touch. However, the plot does compensate for that. The sad state of Aggie and Tom's marriage is depressingly recognisable and does make you feel like being alone forever might be infinitely preferable to winding up that bitter. The musical does however end on a more feel good note, with Janey and Ralph finally celebrating their - somewhat happier - relationship.

You may not remember any of the musical numbers, but they're all enjoyable in the moment and the acting from Robson and Samuels makes A Catered Affair very much worth seeing. Time to buy a hat.

A Catered Affair ran from 3rd to 20th June 2014 at The London Theatre Workshop.

Nearest tube station: Fulham Broadway (District)

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